Lawyer Ron Minkin, once the defender of men who shipped tons of marijuana into this country from such places as Thailand and Colombia, is a most unlikely volunteer in the war on drugs.
For 15 years, Minkin smoked his clients' dope, shared their lavish meals, became godfather to their children. And as his core clientele of hippie dealers moved from small-time street deals on the Sunset Strip and became international drug barons, they paid him millions to keep them out of prison.
Then it unraveled, and it was Minkin who pulled the thread. Working with the government, he reeled in a daisy chain of clients to the close embrace of informant status. He earned the contempt of fellow lawyers, the wary cooperation of the feds and the gratitude of some former clients, who are as thankful to him for cutting them deals as they once were when he got them off drug charges.
Back in his drug-lawyer days, with his finely tailored suits and carefully tended shoulder-length hair, Minkin was a regular at the criminal courts in Los Angeles. But he says that he grew to detest the law and the dealers whose wares were destroying society.
Finally, Minkin broke a commandment so basic to the defense that it is unspoken. With a fervor that even gave prosecutors pause, he set out to bring about the arrests of clients who had come to him for years.
Once they were arrested, Minkin pressured them to become informants. They in turn fingered more clients. He did it all with the blessing and the help of federal law enforcement in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"You can do almost anything when you think you're morally right," Minkin says from the couch of his Woodland Hills condominium. He is shirtless, and his sparse gray hair is clipped close to his scalp, strikingly different from the long locks that he wore in his defense-lawyer heyday. His law practice is in ruins, but he says that bringing down his former clients gave him a satisfaction that he never got when he used to fight to keep them out of jail.
In court, however, questions are being raised about those investigations and how the Justice Department, in its pursuit of drug dealers, embraced Minkin's zealous conversion. His actions shocked defense lawyers, who call him a hypocrite, a walking violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel, a defense lawyer from hell. Old friends doubt that he acted out of outrage at the havoc wreaked by drugs. "When he gives back all the money," a former associate said, "then I'll believe it's a moral thing."
One lawyer, Marcus Topel, is trying to persuade a judge to throw out the drug indictment of one of Minkin's former clients, Steven Marshank, because Minkin allegedly played Marshank false.
As Topel sees it, this slices to the core of the justice system. If lawyers turn against their clients, the adversarial keystone of the courts will be pulled loose. Prosecutors and defense lawyers would be one and the same. "Why bother having attorneys at all? Why not just haul them in and beat confessions out of them?" Topel says sarcastically.
But Minkin contends that dealers are not worthy of protection. They have "done everything they could, to their own profit, to destroy our society and they can't be touched because they hide in the Constitution." And their attorneys, in whose ranks he once starred, are "greedy little pigs eating from the trough of human misery." If they all did what he did, the drug crisis would be history.
Federal authorities who knew Minkin in his lawyering days saw him as less a counselor than a consigliere, and some government agents remain suspicious of him. One even tried to build a criminal case against him for past doings, even as he helped authorities. But he has his defenders.
" 'Morals' and 'Ron Minkin' are hard to put in the same sentence," an FBI agent said. "But I do believe Ron is sincere in what he says, for whatever reason. . . . I never caught him in a blatant lie, or even in fabrication. Now, maybe a little embellishment."
Some of Minkin's longtime clients, who have followed him to the other side of the table, have testified in three major drug trials, provided information for grand jury investigations, and were debriefed about scores of dealers who were part of what Minkin believes is a major drug-dealing organization he later dubbed "the Matrix."
There is debate over how important that information was. But whatever its value, there was a lot of it. Minkin clients named dozens of dealers and laid out their roles in the drug trade. The man suspected in dealing a 100-ton load of hashish that was recently seized in the Pacific Ocean near Midway Island is among the names given by Minkin clients.
However, with U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel poised to issue a ruling in San Francisco that could eviscerate the case against Marshank, the self-styled anti-drug warrior may be on the verge of his greatest defeat.
Marshank, indicted in 1990 on charges of running a ring that distributed tons of marijuana and hashish, is one of Minkin's oldest clients, and he sent him many referrals. Convinced that Marshank was a major dealer, Minkin hoped he would become a "mole" and take down dealers nationwide.
Marshank said no and decided to strike back.
"The reality of Ron Minkin is that he's a sleazy guy," Topel said. "What's shabby about this is that he broke all the rules with the government's help."
Topel contends that Minkin's actions were outrageous, orchestrating Marshank's arrest while acting as his lawyer and cooperating with authorities to coerce Marshank into becoming an informant.
In an April hearing, Topel questioned Minkin and several government agents, trying to persuade Patel to throw out the case against Marshank because of the prosecution's behavior, which Topel says denied Marshank his right to counsel.
And Topel is convinced that Minkin acted not out of moral outrage but for that oldest of motivations--money. Two clients whom Minkin turned in paid him nearly $1 million cash for arranging their surrender. Another client has promised Minkin a third of whatever the client collects as a reward for pointing agents to the assets of his former partners in crime.
He's not in it for the money, Minkin says; if all he wanted was money, he could have kept his practice going.
His days as a lawyer over, Minkin talks of writing a tell-all book about lawyers, but he has been talking about that for a decade. He's in therapy and admits he's "not an emotionally healthy guy." Mostly, he says, he sits in his condo, his sheltie as his one loyal companion, examining his life, feeling guilt and shame for his life as a drug lawyer.
Minkin never went by the book. He helped pay his way through Hastings Law School in San Francisco by working for Howard Hughes. He tended to many of Hughes' strange orders, keeping watch over a plane that the reclusive millionaire owned but rarely flew, and monitoring Hughes' wife, actress Jean Peters, from the shrubbery of a Beverly Hills bungalow.
Idealism did not draw him to the law; it was a way to make money. Minkin spent the 1960s in Los Angeles as a deputy district attorney, and though he was slick in the courtroom, his prosecutorial reputation was based on his ability to spend his days playing the stock market--at which he ultimately lost big.
By 1970, Ronald Minkin Esq. had hung his shingle at 2nd Street and Broadway, a few blocks from the criminal courts. His first clients were small-time criminals, such as the heroin-dealing paraplegic who hid his money in his wheelchair.
A year later, he met Marshank. He knew "instinctively," he says, that Marshank meant money. Marshank, now a wiry man of about 40, grew up in West Los Angeles and over time gained the street name "the Baron."
Through the 1970s, Minkin and Marshank often socialized over dinner and marijuana joints. But Minkin said the relationship cooled and he took to calling the Baron by a less flattering nickname, the Snake. Still, he accepted any clients Marshank sent his way.
His clients justified what they were doing by styling themselves as hippie heroes delivering a vital herb. Some would chant prayers before they shipped their loads from Southeast Asia, and stash Buddhist icons in the shipments for good luck.
Minkin charmed his dealer-clients by "doing" their drugs, and even had psychedelic scenes of mushrooms and flowers painted on his office walls. But though he was part of the gang, he could also strike a deal. One deal he still boasts about involved a young man and woman jailed on marijuana charges in a small Utah town that needed a new police station. He got their case dismissed once they forfeited $20,000--for the new station.
"Ron Minkin wasn't a snitch," said a former client who knew he could call Minkin 24 hours a day. "He was a good attorney who got us out of a lot of trouble."
By the 1980s, Minkin had become increasingly eccentric and reclusive. In the new, more hard-nosed legal climate, his advice to drug clients became simple: Cut a deal, testify. He tells of becoming physically ill at the thought of going to court. He turned away clients willing to pay $150,000. Friends say his drug use became heavier. He took friends to dinner, then yelled if one ordered an extra sauce that might cost another buck. He also would embarrass them by ordering three meals at the same sitting.
In 1986, Minkin had hit a low, emotionally and financially. He was sleeping in the office so often that one of the phone extensions read, "Couch." Then he learned that his wife had cancer. Though he had been living apart from her, he felt responsible and wanted to put together a lot of money for her.
Two choices came his way, he said. He befriended a Colombian cocaine figure and "could have represented his whole organization" if he wanted to. But then one of the old drug crowd dropped by. The man, Gary Ohlgart, and a partner, Gary Crawford, wanted out of the business, but worried about future legal problems.
The deal-maker went to work, like the old times--with a twist. He stoked their fear by noting that another Minkin client, Robert Wehe, was a fugitive who was a rival, faced a lengthy sentence, and could testify against them.
Minkin's solution was a preemptive strike. He called an FBI friend with an offer. Even though they weren't yet targets of any investigation, Ohlgart and Crawford would tell all they knew about what Minkin tantalizingly described as a "uniquely structured criminal enterprise" that had grown bigger than the Mafia.
"You don't go to government straight on. . . . You've got to wrap it in a decent package," Minkin said, explaining his technique.
In exchange, the men needed a promise that they would never be prosecuted for any past dealings, they could keep the money they had already made from drugs, and would never be called to testify.
Minkin knew the deal would land on the desk of James Walsh, a veteran drug prosecutor who now heads the organized crime unit of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. Minkin says he was fond of Walsh and packaged the deal "with him in mind."
Walsh accepted the deal, and for months agents debriefed Ohlgart and Crawford, code-named "Brussel" and "Sprout." For arranging their deal, the ex-dealers paid Minkin "close to $1 million" from 1986 to 1988, Minkin said in court. The money would ensure that his wife would live well in what he thought were her final days. As Minkin sees it, his price was "cheap by half."
"They got every unreasonable thing that I asked from the government--in exchange for information." Most important, they got to keep their money--"millions of dollars."
Once Crawford and Ohlgart were in from the cold, Minkin persuaded Wehe to give himself up. He could verify what Crawford and Ohlgart said. With Wehe in, Minkin focused on Seth Booky, Wehe's partner in a head shop and drug deals.
In June, 1987, Booky had plans to help distribute 10 tons of Thai marijuana. But agents trailing him lost track of the load. Evidently hoping to salvage the operation, they arrested Booky in a much smaller marijuana case. Minkin went to work.
In testimony before Patel, Booky recalled his arrest. He told the agents that he wasn't going to talk until he spoke to his lawyer. As Minkin, the agents and a prosecutor anticipated, Booky phoned Minkin. Minkin's tone turned serious, Booky testified:
"He says, 'You got no choice.'
"He says, 'Listen to my voice.'
"He says, 'You have to cooperate with the government.' "
Booky was stunned. But the shock wore off and in short order he was wearing wires and taping phone calls. In off-hours, Booky wondered if he had been set up. Over a birthday dinner and wine with U.S. Customs Service Agent Ed Ames, Booky started asking questions. Could it be that Minkin had struck a deal for other clients that led to Booky's arrest?
"I was just a pawn in this game," Booky recalled telling Ames. "He nodded and said, 'Pretty good, pretty perceptive.' "
With Booky in, Minkin turned his efforts to Marshank, and in October, 1987, using information supplied by Booky and other Minkin clients, a federal grand jury indicted Marshank on charges of conspiring to import 9,600 pounds of Thai marijuana in 1983.
Authorities turned to Minkin to find Marshank. He obliged by calling Marshank's family, learned he was in Boca Raton, Fla., and told agent Ames, who flew to Florida and arrested him at the health food store he owned.
As Minkin expected, Marshank contacted him from jail. Minkin got to Florida on a Saturday, met Ames, and deliberately waited until Sunday to speak to Marshank, Topel said in court papers. Minkin found Marshank distraught. Even his shoes had been stolen. They had him where they wanted him.
Minkin and the agents needed Marshank's help tracking the marijuana they had lost sight of as they tailed Booky. Marshank thought about cooperating, but he changed his mind and called Topel.
Once it was clear that Marshank would not turn, the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco dropped the charges and began an investigation that resulted in the 1990 indictment accusing him of carrying on a continuing criminal enterprise. He could be sentenced to life imprisonment if he is convicted.
Minkin, meanwhile, stopped venturing to his office. From his living room, he sought to prove that "the Matrix" was real, exhorting agents to pursue people named by his clients.
These days, however, he has little to do with the prosecution. In San Francisco, the U.S. attorney's office, seeking to salvage its case against Marshank, distances itself from Minkin.
"Very definitely, there were some unusual things going on," U.S. Atty. William McGivern said. "Maybe in hindsight various people in the government wouldn't do things the same way again."
In Los Angeles, Walsh would not comment on issues raised by the Marshank case. Of Minkin, he said, "We've always had a very comfortable professional relationship."
Topel wants the California State Bar to disbar Minkin. But in his testimony, Booky defended Minkin: "This man kept me out of jail. In my mind, Ron Minkin represented me very well."
As for Minkin, he says that his decision to switch sides in the war on drugs has allayed some shame he feels for the dealers he once helped. But his emotional problems remain, like the matter of his hair. Each morning, he takes two small pairs of scissors and cuts any hair he thinks is out of place.
He doesn't know why he does it. "If I knew, I could stop. It's a compulsion."
His clients, he bragged, "came out smelling like a rose." Booky and Wehe avoided prison. Ohlgart and Crawford have their money. Since Patel may throw out his case because of Minkin's unusual conduct, even Marshank may come out of it all right, Minkin tells himself.
"If it weren't for me, he'd be convicted."